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The West as Carbon Colony: Echoes of Boom and Bust

Oil Pads in Upper Green River Valley, Wyoming

By John McChesney, Director of the Rural West Initiative

“In many ways the basic outlines of the western economy that persist in some areas down to the present day began in the economic transformation that followed the Civil War. An extractive economy in a world market; an economy plagued by excessive competition and a shortage of capital; an economy dependent on government aid, outside capital, and outside expertise: these qualities still mark large sections of the West.”

- Richard White, faculty co-director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, and author of “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West."

Richard White could be talking about the current energy boom in the West. As oil prices hover around $100 a barrel, new technologies are being put to use to exploirt various forms of energy in the West. Experts say the reserves in oil shale are vast, and energy companies are turning huge stretches of rural western landscape into pincushions bristling with wells piercing deep. The process, known as “fracking,” has become increasingly controversial as evidence emerges that groundwater is being contaminated both by the drilling and by the produced water stored in surface ponds. States like North Dakota and Wyoming are stretched to the limit to regulate the drilling. Wyoming, for example, has only 12 inspectors to monitor 39,000 wells.

But the consequences of the boom are not only environmental; they are social as well, and that’s where we arel concentrating much of our attention in the Rural West Initiative. The infrastructure of the boom states is strained to the breaking point: roads, housing, schools, law enforcement, community relations, are all feeling the impact. Western North Dakota’s Bakken field is on the bleeding edge of this boom right now. Jack Zaleski editorial page editor of the Fargo Forum wrote on Feb. 27:

“Caution flags are going up. Editorial and other voices from the west are hinting or saying outright that damages already caused by oil and gas activities are too much for communities to handle. And it’s not just about roads pounded to dust and mud or oil workers living in tent cities and man camps. It’s becoming more about the fear that the farm and ranch life that has defined the rural west for generations is being shredded by forces over which longtime residents have no control.      

"It’s also about money, of course. The bigger the money, the easier it is to look the other way when a community sacrifices the values that have historically defined it. It’s about envy among neighbors. Some have oil; some don’t. It’s about the power of a state-oil industry machine that is lubricated by the promise – and reality – of tax revenues in amounts never before seen. It’s difficult to resist grabbing the pot at the end of that oil-stained rainbow.”

      The pot is large. North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, 3.6 percent. Around 7,000 workers have entered the state in the past year. In spite of all those new jobs, though, a record number of people are using food stamps in the state—another sign of strain.

      We are exploring the consequences of the current boom and the history of recent energy busts in Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado, as well as North Dakota. We are interested in what steps states have taken, if any, to prepare for and mitigate the consequences of an energy boom.

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Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 6:01